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written Tuesday, 4/10/2007
Leaving for the Capitol
Several weeks ago, my dope teachin’ skillz earned me the opportunity to represent Teach Greater New Orleans (TGNO) at a conference in Washington D.C. Two competing organizations, the National Center for Alternative Certification (NCAC) and the National Association for Alternative Certification (NAAC) had collaborated for the first time to hold a joint conference. Katy, a TGNO foreign language/special education teacher who teaches at Lusher, would also attend. Spring break would start on Good Friday, April 6, and run through the entire next week. The conference was to begin on Tuesday, three days before the start of vacation at Lusher.
This marked a milestone for me. On several occasions in my 1.75 years of teaching, a “professional development” event of some sort has taken me away from the classroom. Typically the nature of the event was of secondary concern, as my primary thought was always, “Good, I get to be away from those damned kids.” This was the first time for which my immediate instinct was to dismiss the opportunity, in favor of making full use of the little time I have left with my students in this school year. Ultimately though, I couldn’t pass up the chance to see the nation’s capitol, which I’d never visited before. I did worry considerably about how I could best ensure that the learning process would continue in my classroom during my absence. Simply escaping those damned kids had fallen to third or fourth place on the list of thoughts occupying my mind. This is progress!
Katy and I left school at lunchtime on Monday, heading for the airport. We quickly learned that the workshop was geared more for directors of Alternative Certification (AC) programs rather than the practitioners. Our major role was to participate on a panel of six alternatively certified teachers Wednesday afternoon. Our discussion would focus on “impacting student learning.”
Most of the activities and workshops didn’t interest me as a practitioner in an AC program. However, learning about the role of Alternative Certification in the American education system did impress me. One speaker asserted that a half-million AC teachers are in classrooms today, 60,000 new ones are hired annually, and 40% of newly hired teachers come through the AC route each year. Back when I decided to join the teaching profession, I thought Teach For America (TFA) was the only alternative game in town. I found TGNO after TFA rejected me, but I still had no idea that so many other programs existed to allow people with non-education degrees to enter the classroom.
After realizing that we weren’t even registered to participate in Tuesday’s activities, Katy and I spent most of the day sightseeing (More on that later).
Some 478 people had registered for this conference, and presumably most were in attendance for Wednesday morning’s general session. At the end of the session, the NCAC President asked for all the teacher practitioners in the audience to come to the front of the ballroom. About two-dozen people converged to the stage, where she requested three volunteers to speak briefly about their AC experiences on stage during the lunch session. Not knowing exactly what I was agreeing to, I quickly raised my hand.
I still get nervous every day when I step in front of my classroom. In my high school days, speech class gave me my only D grade. On this day, I saw an opportunity to grow a little in an area of weakness.
At lunchtime, two other practitioners and I were seated amongst the NCAC and NAAC Presidents and several other speakers at the table on the ballroom stage. I’ve told my story so many times that I already had a pretty good idea of what I was going to say. However, as the presidents delivered broad-reaching speeches, the other two practitioners scribbled down notes in preparation for their talks. I soon followed suit.
The first practitioner to speak teaches second-grade math in Monroe, Louisiana. Born and raised in New Orleans, he described his journey into teaching and received a warm response from the audience of several hundred.
Speaking second, I started off with a tried and true joke: “My name is Jerome White. Before I entered education, I worked for nine years as a Mechanical Design Engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Silicon Valley, California. However, I eventually reached a point where I just got tired… (pause for dramatic effect…) I just got tired of earning a decent living wage.”
I mentioned that my decision to change careers was more about leaving engineering than joining the “most noble” profession of teaching. Not sure I was cut out for the job, I was not willing to take the traditional route of earning an education degree before entering the classroom. I noted my adventurous move to New Orleans in summer 2005, including public school system bankruptcy, subsequent job shortages, an apartment burglary, the worst Gulf Coast hurricane season in history, and the couple job transfers that resulted from it. I described how I had just reached a pivotal point in my career. Since moving to Louisiana, my response to the question “So, do you like teaching?” has typically been “Not really.” Only recently have I begun to hesitantly answer “yes” to that question, and I hope I’m on my way to saying, “I love teaching!” Alternative Certification programs such as TGNO may not be perfect, but I’m extremely thankful that they exist to allow me to pursue this career opportunity.
The third speaker, a pregnant mother and part-time television traffic reporter in Dallas, followed me with her story about teaching English as a Second Language to teenagers. She was clearly very comfortable with public speaking, and nicely rounded out a varying range of perspectives.
Like my poetry readings in recent weeks, I was pleasantly surprised by my own lack of nervousness. This was by far the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to, but I felt oddly at ease. Immediately after the lunch session and over the following days, numerous people praised my story and my “funny” and “honest” telling of it.
The panel discussion on Wednesday afternoon gave me another chance to practice my public speaking skills. This occurred in one of a dozen hour-long “break-out sessions.” Other than a few people associated with one or more of us six panelists, only four or five people attended our session – and the dude in the front row kept dozing off. Oh well. In this low-pressure environment, we discussed questions such as:
Further attempting to break out of my shell, I practiced the age-old art of networking throughout the conference – a skill I’ve neglected for far too long. I enjoyed a wide range of conversations with people involved in Alternative Certification across the country, and exchanged contact information with some of them. If I decide to move to another part of the country someday before Mom makes me come back to California, I have a few interesting leads.
Update on a friend
The subject of Alternative Certification got me thinking about Nihar, my TGNO friend from summer 2005. We bonded during those months, and evacuated together with Michelle for several weeks to Houston. However, neither one of us has been great about staying in touch ever since he moved to New York in summer 2006. I called him while museum-hopping on Saturday, and we spent about an hour catching up.
Nihar now lives in the rough Bushwick/Bedstuy neighborhood in Brooklyn. When we last spoke some months ago, he seemed disillusioned by his middle school math position. Unfortunately, he ultimately resigned in January amidst some “shady” happenings at the school. The handling of one student’s home life issues, and another student’s accusations created an uncomfortable work atmosphere. I’m always saddened and frustrated when factors conspire to drive bright, skilled teachers out of the classroom.
Nihar wants to someday find his way back into education, but in the meantime he’s training in database administration. I wish him well in whatever he does, but I also hope he finds a way to directly share his talents with younger generations.
I enjoyed considerable time for sightseeing in DC. The conference ended early Friday, but I wouldn’t return to New Orleans until Easter Sunday. My stay occurred right in the middle of the Cherry Blossom Festival. I spent about half my free time visiting the obligatory sights with fellow Lusher teacher Katy: The White House, Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Vietnam Memorial, Supreme Court, and some of the many incredible Smithsonian museums. I lugged my camera around, never sure why I felt compelled to take pictures of famous sights that have already been captured millions of times by photographers more skilled than myself. Nonetheless, below I present the irrefutable proof that I did in fact go to the nation’s capitol, just in case anyone should question my truthfulness about where I’ve spent the past week.
I spent the other half of my free time wandering alone on foot through various neighborhoods. I quickly accepted that I would not see all that DC has to offer in one week, so I was not bothered by thoughts of what else I could have been seeing or doing instead. Navigating the Metro subway lines was a fun new experience for me, never having lived in a city with underground public transportation.
Aside from San Francisco and New York, DC is one of the greatest vegetarian/vegan havens in the country, according to the VegNews hippie rag I subscribe to. I consulted VegDC.com for a list of restaurants to visit, ultimately trying out five of them. One favorite was the Soul Vegetarian Restaurant, next to Howard University, whose non-dairy version of mac n’ cheese was astoundingly convincing. I also splurged at Sticky Fingers Bakery, which has been acclaimed for years in numerous veg sources. The vegan cheesecake was incredible.
Riding the subway. Walking the neighborhood streets. Visiting funky little restaurants. Amongst all the grandeur of Washington DC, exploring the mundane was a highlight of my trip.
Strolling amongst Victorian row houses in DC one minute, only to find myself passing by a run down public housing project the next minute reminded me a bit of New Orleans. However, DC contained an undeniably different big city vibe than the Big Easy. Throughout the trip, I kept thinking, “DC is pretty cool, but I’ll be glad to get back home.”
Home. I wasn’t thinking of California. I was thinking of New Orleans.
It’s taken a long time to think of this broken-down, third-world city as home. It’s taken a long time to start feeling like a teacher. Holy crap, am I missing my students right now? Maybe just a bit.